Q: "My wife and I would love to visit Georgia (the country, not the US state). We’d like to eat lots of good food and drink lots of its famous orange wine, and would be keen on a city/countryside break.
Any advice or suggested time of year to go?"
What a topic you’ve gifted us, reader! We’ve nothing against Georgia the state, but Georgia the country is a firm favourite here at JFC, so we’ll take any excuse to wax lyrical.
It sounds like you’re open to seeing (or rather tasting) everything and anything that Georgia has to offer, so we’ll try and give you the highlights for each season. But first, you need to know about a couple of the culinary facts that won’t change, no matter when you visit.
Georgian cuisine offers a surprisingly large amount for vegetarians and vegans thanks to Orthodox tradition, but it is not so friendly to those with nut allergies. Walnuts are the backbone of many Georgian dishes, used in everything from stews, to salads, to sweets. The good news is that if you’re not a veggie/vegan as well as having a nut allergy, you can spend your meals sampling khachapuri (cheese bread) and/or mtsvadi (meat skewers) to your heart’s content.
Spring in Georgia means festival season. Everything kicks off after Easter, but we’d pinpoint the second half of May for the ideal dégustation holiday.
Come late April, winemakers pop open the lids on their traditional clay qvevri to get a taste of the previous year’s produce, before doing the decent thing and bottling it up to share with the public at the New Wine Festival in mid-May. The festival includes wines from all over Georgia, and - unbelievably - is completely free.
Next up, you’ll want to move on to the Kakheti region. Telavi and Sighnaghi both make for a good base - the former offering easy connections and a little more buzz, while the latter knows a thing or two about cute cobblestone streets.
Kakheti is Georgia’s most prolific wine region. There’s absolutely no way you’ll be able to visit every winery there (that’s not a challenge), but opting for small, family run vineyards can give you a really personal experience. Alternatively, choose to stay overnight at a winery with accommodation, where you can “accidentally” sleepwalk into the wine cellar, for example Chateau Artwine.
Aside from grape-related attractions, you’ll find several ancient monasteries nearby. The most unusual is probably the David Gareja Complex, a series of rock-hewn cave monasteries dating back to the 6th century. The Ninotsminda Monastery Complex, on the other hand, appears more like an imposing, fortified castle.
And as an added bonus, late May sees the Tushetian Cheese Festival come to Akhmeta, in the spectacular Pankisi Valley. It’s the home of the Kist people, a group of ethnic Chechens who settled here in the 1800s. Staying a night or two in a local guesthouse will give you the chance to try typical Kist specialities like pumpkin-stuffed khachapuri and Kisturi beer. Full disclosure - it is non-alcoholic.
One thing is for sure about summer in Georgia - you’ll want to leave Tbilisi and get away from the intense heat of the lowlands. Most opt for the mountains or the seaside, though Batumi and other resort towns can be very busy, so you’ll want to book early.
The healing springs of the subtropical Sairme resort became a popular summer retreat during the Soviet era. To this day, people believe in the power of the town’s fresh drinking water to cure their ailments. Even if you’re just passing through the town, you can fill up your bottle at the taps scattered around, or drop into the Thermal Spa & Wellness Centre for a swim or treatment.
While the various hiking trails leaving from Sairme may also be of interest to you, reader, we suspect the nearby Imereti Wine Route might be even more up your street. The wineries here are much smaller and less developed for tourism, so you should definitely book ahead. Baia’s Wine is one of the easiest to contact directly, while others can be organised through guided tours.
The summer months are the only time of year many of Georgia’s mountain roads are open, so it’s worth heading to the dizzying heights of the Greater Caucasus. Svaneti is arguably one of the most beautiful regions, with glaciers, mountainside lakes and some of the most remote villages in Europe.
Many of the Svan people speak an older version of the Georgian language and have traditions many consider archaic, but they also have yet more regional variations on khachapuri to offer. Kubdari comes stuffed with beef or lamb and onions, fetvraal contains a mixture of salty mountain cheese and green millet, and chvishtari is a cheese-filled cornbread. But then there’s every child’s dream, tashmijabi - aka, cheesy mashed potatoes.
Harvest time, or Rtveli, is a big deal for wine growers in Georgia. Far beyond just picking and crushing grapes (though we’ve always fancied a stomp), vineyards go the extra mile with their tours and tastings, and will often jump at the chance to have an extra pair of hands for a day or two.
Kakheti’s harvest tends to arrive first, usually in late August or early September, and lasting for around a month. The dates creep gradually later as you move west, with the more humid western regions of Adjara and Guria finishing up in November.
Over on the Black Sea coast, Batumi is a practical starting point for sampling Adjarian produce. You can stick nearby the city with the vast Adjarian Wine House known for its dry rosé wines, or venture further into the mountains to Keda, a district packed with vineyards, waterfalls, ancient stone bridges and picturesque villages.
This time of year is prized by Batumi locals, known fondly as Velvet Season. It’s when the summer crowds have gone home, yet the weather still lends itself to a spot of sunbathing and swimming. We assure you velvet swimwear isn’t a thing in Georgia - apparently, the name comes from the olden days when royals swapped their furs for velvet when visiting the seaside.
Since you’re in Georgia’s port city, it’s important to take in the sights and smells of the country’s only remaining fish market. Once you’ve musseled in among the crowds and snappered up your seafood, the fishmonger will gut and clean it for you. You can then take it to one of the many neighbouring restaurants, which will happily grill your goods for a small charge.
And being by the sea, you might not be surprised that the local khachapuri is shaped like a boat. If you can handle a heavy breakfast, it comes filled with cheese (obviously) and topped with a runny egg.
Contrary to what you may expect from winter in Georgia, the weather doesn’t tend to be all that harsh, especially in cities like Tbilisi or Batumi. While the western regions are damp, and the Caucasus become a haven for snow bunnies, you can expect lovely conditions for wandering through the capital and its (absolutely massive) botanical gardens.
Arguably, winter is the best time to fully appreciate Tbilisi’s famous sulfur baths. It’s easy to be lured in by the fancy mosaic facade of Chreli-Abano - what it lacks in traditional domed roof, it makes up for in high-end (English-speaking) service. Gulo’s Thermal Spa offers the best of both worlds, with the classic brick walls, marble and intricate murals, topped off with a hot tea after your soak.
But if you’d rather plunge into the authentic local experience, head to Sulfur Bath No. 5, where the baths may or may not be in order and customer service is especially “gruff”. Just what you want when you’re half naked in front of strangers.
With the festive season in Georgia comes a whole raft of new treats for us to claim we’re having “just one more” of. The main ones to watch out for are gozinaki, a chewy, crunchy, honey nut brittle usually made with walnuts, and churchkhela, a strand of nuts threaded along a piece of string and dipped in grape syrup until they resemble candle sticks. And of course, that’s all best washed down with a nice warming glass of chacha.
There are a couple of staples on every Christmas table in Georgia, too - the obligatory Imeruli khachapuri, and aubergine rolls stuffed with - you guessed it - walnuts. Traditionalists needn’t worry, as turkey still features (albeit covered in walnut sauce), but other Georgian celebrations will be less familiar. Christmas is celebrated on 7th January, according to the Orthodox calendar, so don’t be surprised if you find people burning shaved hazelnut branches and parading through the streets after New Year.
We could go on about Georgia forever, reader, but we’ll give it a rest for now lest we turn into a khachapuri. However, one incredibly comprehensive website we recommend using to help plan your holiday is Wander-Lush. You’ll find tips on every region, the best day trips, what to expect from the Stalin Museum, and more.
Hopefully that’s worked up your appetite for a Georgian adventure, so please let us know when you decide to go, and send us some pictures when you get back!